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Problem

Whenever I play a spellcaster, and I level up and it's time to pick/prepare new spells, I almost always avoid those with material components that have a price, since you can't just substitute them out for your spellcasting focus (i.e. ignore them like you can pretty much all other material components).

The idea that you have to keep an eye out for these very specific and very expensive items (Imprisonment seems like a particularly good example of how obscure and expensive some of these materials can get, although it is an extreme, what with it being a 9th level spell, Clairvoyance is a less extreme lower-level example) and I find this quite annoying and I just end up changing my decision of spells instead of dealing with that restriction, thereby effectively taking that spell out of the game. I'll point out that I've never asked my DM how likely I am to find the item; I just change my decision.

I want my D&D games to be about being heroes and killing dragons and such, not about shopping around for extremely obscure items just so you can do something once (if it's one of those spells that consumes it, which are the worse type of spells-with-a-material-component-with-a-price), then it's back to hoping you find this obscure item again... or just pick a different spell in the first place that just works all the time.

Solution

So, since I know some of my players have similar views on being put off certain spells because of certain material restrictions, I was planning on simply doing away with that rule in an upcoming game I'll be DMing (i.e. houseruling that all material components can be substituted out for your focus, including those with a cost, even if it says they are consumed, which obviously won't consume the focus if a focus is used; alternatively, Component Pouches just always happen to have those items in them, like the mere desire to cast that spell forces those items to spawn into existence inside the pouch).

Question

My question is: What impact on gameplay balance would this have? I mean, obviously PCs (and NPCs) would have easier access to more powerful spells that otherwise have a sort of "cap" on them, so I might have to adjust the difficulty of encounters and such, but otherwise would it be so bad to effectively re-include the spells into the game that would otherwise exclude themselves by having unattractive material component restrictions?


PS: My home universe doesn't have resurrection spells, so concern about everyone just getting up all the time like everyone's a Zealot Barbarian all of a sudden is not all that relevant to this question; I mean, you can include it in your answer if you like, but I'd rather you not make it your main point.

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Spell components allow the player characters to be given an ability at a certain level while restricting how frequently or how readily they can use it.

Placing raise dead at 5th level spell essentially means that 9th level characters unlock the ability to return to life if slain. You don't want to allow low-level characters that ability, or it cheapens death, and the game relies on that to build tension; but you don't want players who have invested much time in their high level characters to be so afraid of being killed that they never take risks.

But you still want there to be some reason why players can't just raise dead freely, so that there's still a drawback to being killed. You have to fear your character dying or there's no tension, no risk, and less excitement as a result. There must be a cost to raising the dead to stop you using it repeatedly.

There are just some spells that you want the players to have access to, but not use too frequently. Divination, for example, your players will use repeatedly if they can. They will make heavier use of area-defence spells like arcane lock, glyph of warding, hallow, and magic circle. They will eat a heroes' feast every day and identify every item they find with legend lore.

D&D 5th edition's non-consumed material components, what D&D 3.5 used to term a focus, have a different mechanical effect. It allows the game to keep certain spells at or near their traditional level, but deny them to characters who are new to that level. Identify, for example, is still a 1st level spell but its 100 gp non-consumed component makes it unavailable to starting characters.

The 50 gp component of chromatic orb discourages new players from taking this spell and encourages more traditional spells like magic missile; upon reaching level 2, most characters will have acquired enough money to buy the gemstone required for this spell, and they can take the new spell then. (The game may do this to avoid confusing new players with attack roll and element choice, or to artificially protect traditional newbie spells like magic missile which ordinarily do less damage but hit more reliably; missing with one of two high-level spells per day is frustrating to new players who may be familiar with videogame RPGs which typically allow many spells with a relatively fast recharge.)

Since treasure tends to scale with level, in many cases components have the effect of giving high-level characters something to use in lower-level slots. When you're very high level, you really can eat heroes' feast every day, but without consuming a more high level spell slot. Lower-level characters can only afford to use it on some days, so components can effectively create a type of spell that can only practically be cast less often than daily, which is something you otherwise can't do within the spell slot system.

Material components also give the players a goal, and make for some interesting choices. The wizard wants to find a pearl worth 100 gp for his identify spell, and will gladly give up his share of the gold to keep such a pearl. The party may be forced to sacrifice a very valuable 5,000 gp diamond because it's the only one they have worth at least 1,000 gp and required for an important spell.

There's also the effect you mentioned that material components allow the DM to hand out the unique component for a given spell (e.g. to manually limit the number of uses of raise dead per adventure). However, I don't believe that this is the primary reason for spell components.

Many of the components are shared between different spells, and are relatively well-known and easily-purchased (with the right amount of money), such as diamonds. Most groups I've gamed with simply hand-wave the exact components as long as you expend the right amount of gold. The DM can use it as a way to manually limit uses of certain spells in an in-game way, but in my experience it's a way to make certain actions more expensive.

If you remove expensive spell components, players will use those spells more readily. They're still limited by the number of spell slots they have per day, so it's not actually entirely broken. The main concern is abilities which can be used out-of-combat. You could make an everburning torch for free each day in your downtime. You could cast divination every day at no cost. Your players never have to think, "Do I spend the money to legend lore here?", but will fully identify the lore of each and every item in downtime.

These aren't necessarily bad things. The video game Dark Souls tells huge amounts of its story through item descriptions. You can use divination to give players hints they missed or forewarn them of danger. Your players may enjoy cheap access to raise dead, and you might enjoy a higher likelihood that PCs will survive to follow the character plots you've got planned.

Simply be aware of the spells that are intended to be of limited use, and think carefully about how frequent use will change your game, and how it may change your game world if this type of magic is more readily available to NPCs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "The 50 gp component of chromatic orb discourages new players from taking this spell and encourages more traditional spells like magic missile." This is precisely the situation I was trying to avoid. I want players to take spells that appeal to them, rather than essentially having those choices removed due to these material components, being "railroaded" into typical optimal choices rather than choices that appeal for other reasons. (I know your answer makes a lot more points that just that, but that particular line really stood out to me as missing the point.) \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jul 5 '18 at 8:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ My answer doesn't mean to cast a value judgement on your proposal to eliminate spell components. It merely states what effect they have, and what will happen if you remove them. All I'm saying is that removing components will allow a character to start with chromatic orb. My answer doesn't pass judgement on whether this is good or bad thing. It merely answers the question of what impact it would have to remove components, not whether or not one should, which is entirely up to the DM. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Jul 5 '18 at 12:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm... I suppose... would it be possible to add something to that line making your implication about the fact that they might take it at 2nd level (or later still) once they've found a 50gp gem more explicit? (if only because my -1 is locked in until you make an edit; your response has made me rethink my vote...) \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jul 5 '18 at 12:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have updated my answer to give more thought to the reasoning behind chromatic orb. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Jul 5 '18 at 13:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting. Any links to designers talking about using component cost to discourage new players from taking certain spells? \$\endgroup\$ – Neil B Jul 5 '18 at 15:09
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So, after asking this question, the following thought occurred to me, which might actually be the answer to my question:

Consumable material components or material components with a cost are simply a way for the DM to limit certain spells on a table-by-table basis.

In other words, me simply houseruling that those components don't matter isn't much different from me showering my players with obscure items and expensive gems to be used for those spells, if indeed I don't mind them being able to use all those spells all the time.

Therefore, the only "balance issue" is that, if I change my mind half way through the game, too late, the house-rule is in place, and removing it is unfair to players who chose the spells they chose under that assumption, whereas if I left the rules alone and just drowned the players in material components, I could stop giving them those material components if it became a problem.

In other words, my house rule would be a static way of dealing with the problem in a not-very-easily-reversible way, whereas leaving the rules alone and controlling the flow of material components is a dynamic way of controlling how often players get to use those spells.

Usually, as a DM, I don't care about these kinds of fiddly details, and I'm generally more interested in plots and monsters and roleplaying NPCs and such, rather than fussing over obscure items. This may be why I didn't realise this sooner (like, before I posted the question). However, this is simply my take on it; others may come up with wildly different answers to this one...

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree. Its not really that many spells that require costly ingredients and, as a DM, I usually just sprinkle a few 100gp pearls and diamonds around the loot (and/or it might even add a bit of 'adventure' if it requires the PCs to locate a town or city where such an item is available). \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jul 4 '18 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems like a good answer indeed, what I've experienced as a player is the DM giving obscure group of items as loot saying "you can tell the lot is worth about 1000 GP" for example. Then when a caster needs a diamond worth 100gp: "You know you had one in that bag of loot from earlier." and voila now it's a diamond+900gp pouch. \$\endgroup\$ – FenrirG Jul 4 '18 at 14:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Originally the costly components was a way to reduce the level at which you get it. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jul 4 '18 at 14:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you change your mind half way trough, you can allow the players to swap out spells affected by the change. This keeps it fair and allows you to experiment with ideas. \$\endgroup\$ – ravery Jul 4 '18 at 14:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Even if you ignore the gp cost of spell components it can still be a good idea to keep specific (and hard to acquire, though still no gp cost) spell components, like those for Imprisonment. Going with the idea of showering them with spell components (and being able to turn that flow up or down later) takes care of this issue. You want them to readily be able to use the spell? Make the component easily available. Don't want it to be easy? Make it a quest to get said component (can be even rarer than the write-up in the original spell description). \$\endgroup\$ – wakkowarner321 Jul 5 '18 at 14:42
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A solution we used in one campaign was to add another layer of abstraction on material components and just substitute them with their GP value. So if you cast a spell with a material component worth 1000 GP, you pay 1000 GP on the spot.

It is simply assumed that the character bought that particular item at some earlier point in time where they had the opportunity to do so. An item worth 1000 GP is also worth 1000 GP if sold (or so our table assumed, YMMV), so it doesn't matter much if the wizard carries their wealth around in coins or in valuable spell components.

This house rule meant that spells with an expensive material component were still a drain on our financial resources, but we didn't have to bother with micro-managing the inventory of our spellcasters anymore.

It removed a bit strategic resource management, though. Even if you assume that all material components are easy to buy and sell in any larger city, you still free the spellcasters from having to decide in which components exactly they want to invest their limited wealth. So you give them more flexibility than they would usually have.

It also removed the opportunity for subquests to obtain material components. This wasn't an issue in our particular campaign, because it already had more than enough plot. But if you want to bring that back, then the DM could rule that some particular component is so rare in your campaign world that it can not be bought anywhere, so it needs to be obtained in-character. But the DM should say so when a player is about to learn a spell which requires that component so the player doesn't make any false assumptions.

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Death will become cheap

The one type of spell that instantly comes to mind is the raise dead-type spells, which bring back the dead for another go at life. Removing the cost associated with these spells leads to a rather bizarre setting where death by anything but old age becomes essentially meaningless.

100 GP diamonds aren't exactly tricky to get for an adventuring party with a lot of wealth, but you've just created a world where the only reason not to revive every dead NPC you come across is time and spell slots.

Over a hundred years ago existed a wizard named Gilbert Wazup who had the secret tattood on his back, but he was eaten by a dragon, so the secret was lost forever. Thus starts your epic journey to...

"True ressurection, Gilbert Wazup"

Other spells

There are other spells that have a requirement of a rare or hard to get item, simply because they are above the power level of other spells of a similar level.

You reach the enemy wizard's lair. What do you do?

I open the door!

Ok you're all dead, he's been spending the last 3 weeks casting Glyph of Warding on it every day, and I don't feel like rolling a 100d6 to see exactly how much damage it did to everybody.

How exactly are you going to deal with a wizard who can go invincible for 10 minutes at least once a day?

A 5000 GP diamond is something few people in the world have access to. What happens if every cult leader can cast it once every day to bring an unending stream of extraplanar nonsense to Toril?

Don't like Fred? Well don't worry, for the cheap cheap price of one level 9 spellslot per day, Fred is now entombed far beneath the earth thanks to Imprisonment. Tomorrow his mother is next, his father the day after, etc.

In short, you're going to make spells that the developers think you shouldn't cast that often, way easier to cast, which is going to lead to exploitable weaknesses in your setting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Cheap price? 9th-level slots are available only to the rarest, most powerful people in the world. Exclusivity is their price, not a few thousand gold. A wizard immune to damage (which, by the way, yet another 9th-level spell) is still vulnerable to approximately 8000 other ways to shut him down, and if 'every cult leader' in Toril has access to gate, then maybe yes, the world is in serious trouble! \$\endgroup\$ – Neil B Jul 5 '18 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem is more pronounced at level 9 spell slots, but you could easily make it a problem earlier. With enough time, a wizard with access to third level spell slots could, for example, stack several dozen glyphs of warding on a single space for free, creating an instant-death trap. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jul 5 '18 at 21:08
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Arguably no impact on balance.

There doesn't seem to be a consistent-enough design behind component costs for their removal to significantly impact the game.

If spell components were truly intended as a balancing factor for the magic system, they would need to be consistent, scaled correctly, and used hand-in-hand with stricter wealth-by-level guidelines then 5E enforces. Either that or over-hauled into something other than gp value. 50gp for a 1st-level chromatic orb? 25gp for a 4th-level divination? Historic or thematic or both, the design seems haphazard.

1000gp might stop an 11th-level party with DMG-standard wealth (5000gp per PC give or take) from casting heroes' feast every adventuring day, but how long will that last? The component is, I suppose, strange enough that they may have to sink some party funds into a bag full of gem-encrusted bowls should they want the spell available at a moment's notice -- but it's still a gem-encrusted bowl worth 1000gp, and good for bartering should the need arise.

A 9th-level party will laugh in the face of 500gp for a raise dead. Even extremely expensive spells like a 25,000gp true resurrection won't put a dent in the funds of a party capable of casting 9th-level spells.

I only enforce component availability for "expensive" spells (this is a subjective call, but examples would include heroes' feast and resurrection). There are certain spells that seem, to me, to need a cost associated with them but this is more for theme than balance.

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